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Taka Nakagami

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Have we emerged any the wiser after three days of testing at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand by the MotoGP field? That is hard to say.

The test was more for the benefit of Michelin than for the teams, and the French tire maker brought some 2000 tires for the 24 riders who took part in the test.

The track itself was not particularly challenging or instructive in terms of understanding how well bike development was going. “This track is also not so easy or so difficult, it’s intermediate,” is how Monster Tech 3 Yamaha replacement Hafizh Syahrin summed it up.

Is it possible to draw conclusions about how the 2018 championship might play out on the basis of the Buriram test? “No, impossible,” Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso said, before proceeding to do just that in some detail.

“I can see Marc in a better shape than at the beginning of last year,” Dovizioso said. “I can see Dani in a good shape, I can see Zarco with a little bit more experience, so a little bit better for the championship than last year.”

It was harder to judge the Movistar Yamahas, Dovizioso said. “It’s very difficult to understand the two factory Yamahas, because they will be fast in the race, on race weekends, for sure.”

“But when you look at the riders and the teams from outside, it’s impossible to know the details, so I don’t know. I can see the Pramac riders are fast, they are happy with the bike, so I think they will be quite fast during the season.”

If there is one thing that makes real life much more interesting than fiction, it is that real life is no respecter of plausible plot lines. If you were to take a script of the 2017 MotoGP season so far to a movie producer or a fiction publisher, they would reject it 30 seconds into your pitch. It is all a little too implausible.

Five riders battling for the championship after 12 rounds? Never happens. A championship leader with a record low number of points? A ridiculous notion. Riders winning races one weekend, then struggling to make the top five, or even top ten the next?

A horribly transparent plot device to create tension. Championship leaders conveniently crashing, struggling with tires, or suffering bike problems? A little too convenient to be credible.

How about the supposedly colorless second rider in a team suddenly blossoming into a championship contender? The most trite of clichés, like the mousy librarian who transforms into a babe once she takes her glasses off.

The struggle of a rider swapping bikes to become competitive, making up and down progress, and a big step forward when handed a technological MacGuffin? So blatant it’s obscene. No professional writer of fiction would stoop to such depths.

Aprilia has today confirmed another of the worst-kept secrets in the paddock, announcing that they have signed Scott Redding to replace Sam Lowes in the Gresini Aprilia MotoGP team for the 2018 season.

The news came as no surprise, after it became apparent that Aprilia had decide to break Lowes’ contract at the end of this season.

Lowes had been contracted for two seasons in MotoGP, but Aprilia decided to invoke an escape clause, after the Englishman had struggled at the start of the season. For the full background to the story, read the Friday MotoGP round up from Austria.

With just ten days to go until the winter test ban comes in to force, on December 1st, teams in both world championships are busy doing their last tests and collecting as much data as possible to take into the winter break.

Testing is already happening on Monday, with some of the World Superbike teams gathering in Jerez. Kawasaki, the SMR Aprilia squad, Althea BMW, and Ten Kate (soon to be Red Bull) Honda are at the Jerez circuit, though the wet weather means there is little going on on track.

Ten Kate are without Nicky Hayden, who has twisted his knee while practice dirt track. The WorldSBK teams are due to stay for a couple more days, and will hope that the better weather forecast for later in the week arrives sooner rather than later.

Starting on pole, or at least on the front row, is important at every race track, but at the Sachsenring, it is doubly so. There are very few passing opportunities at the German circuit: Turn 1, though it is not easy. Turn 12, after the run down the hill.

And if you are smart, Turn 13, the final corner, but that is usually only possible if you have just been passed on the way into Turn 12, and the rider who passed you is now off line.

So a strong qualifying is crucial. Normally, that means the fastest riders make their way to the front of the grid. But not on Saturday.

At the Sachsenring, a series of crashes meant that the grid had a strangely unfamiliar look. Three satellite riders on the two front rows, and two riders universally acknowledged to have the strongest pace well down the field.

At least they weren’t crashing in Turn 11. With the sun out, the asphalt significantly warmer, and with riders having learned the hard way that they need to get the line right through that viciously fast corner, riders were instead finding different ways to crash.

Andrea Iannone went down unexpectedly at Turn 1. Jorge Lorenzo hit the deck at Turn 8, then again at Turn 1, bringing his crash total for the weekend to three.

We knew that the 86th edition of the Dutch TT at Assen was going to be historic. It was, after all, the first time the race was to be run on Sunday, after being run on Saturday since 1925.

What we didn’t know was that the day the race was held would end up being the least interesting historic fact about it. The record books will have plenty to say about Sunday’s race at Assen.

There was some fascinating racing in all three classes, as is is so often the case at Assen. The Moto3 race saw a scintillating race decided at the line, the podium separated by less than four hundredths of a second. We had a return to something like the Moto2 of old, with a sizable group battling over the podium spots.

And last but not least, we had a bizarre two-part MotoGP race, red-flagged, restarted, and with a mold-breaking winner. When we look back, the MotoGP race at Assen could well prove to be a pivotal point in the championship.

The red-flagged MotoGP race was down to the weather once again playing a starring role in the weekend. After rain on Saturday, Sunday started bright, though the track took time to warm up and dry out.

Clouds rolled in and rolled back out again, as is their wont at Assen, occasionally spitting but not looking like they would cause major problems for any of the three classes.

Until the last part of the Moto2 race, when the heavens finally opened and drenched the track. That race would be red-flagged, and it would not be the only one.

There’s an old racing adage: when the flag drops, the talking stops, though the word ‘talking’ is rarely used. It’s a cliche, but like all cliches, it is a cliche because it reflects such a basic truth.

Without bikes circulating on track in anger, fans and press have nothing to do but engage in idle speculation, and pick over the minutiae of rules, rumors and races long past. As soon as the racing starts again, all is forgotten, and we all lose ourselves in the now. It is the zen which all racing fans aspire to.

So after spending months going round in circles over the 2014 regulations, speculating about who they favor, and expressing outrage at either the perceived injustice of the rules, or the supposed incompetence of those involved in drawing them up at the last minute, the talk stopped at Qatar on Sunday night.

The fans filled their bellies on three outstanding races, all of which went down to the wire. With something once again at stake, all talk of rules was forgotten.

And to be honest, the 2014 rules had none of the negative effects which so many people had feared. The best riders on the day still ended up on the podium, while the gap between the winner and the rest of the pack was much reduced. The gap from the winner to the first Ducati was cut from 22 seconds in 2013 to 12 seconds this year.

The gap from the winner to Aleix Espargaro – first CRT in 2013, first Open class rider in 2014 – was cut from 49 seconds to just 11 seconds. And even ignoring Espargaro’s Yamaha M1, the gap to the first Honda production racer – an outstanding performance by Scott Redding on the Gresini RCV1000R – was slashed to 32 seconds.

Even the cut in fuel did not affect the races as badly as many feared. It appeared that there had been some dissembling going on in both the Yamaha and Honda garages. HRC had been brushing off any suggestions that fuel may be an issue for them, while at Yamaha, there were a number of worried faces.

There was a clue that things were not as serious as feared when Jorge Lorenzo stopped worrying about fuel and focused his ire on the new Bridgestone rubber, but Valentino Rossi kept banging the fuel drum.

On race day, there was no sign of fuel issues for the Italian, Rossi telling the press conference that his engineers had done a great job to fix the fuel issues, and had given him a properly fast bike. “I think Yamaha worked well on the fuel consumption,” he said.

On Thursday night, it looked like a revolution had been unleashed in MotoGP. After qualifying on Saturday, that revolution has been postponed. Three Spaniards on pole, two Spaniards on the front row for both MotoGP and Moto3. No prizes for guessing the names of any of the polesitters, all three were hotly tipped favorites at the beginning of the year.

So what has changed to restore order to the proceedings? In a word, track time. When the riders took to the track on Thursday, the factory riders had a lot of catching up to do. They had been down at Phillip Island, a track which has lots of grip and puts plenty of load into the tires.

The heat resistant layer added to the 2013 tires really comes into its own, the track imbuing the riders with confidence. Qatar is a low grip track, thanks in part to the cooler temperatures at night, but the sand which continuously blows onto the track also makes it extremely abrasive, posing a double challenge to tire makers.

Use rubber which is too soft, and the tire is gone in a couple of laps. Make it hard enough to withstand the abrasion, and it’s hard to get the tire up to temperature.

Coming to Qatar is always tricky, riders needing time to build confidence and learn to trust the tires. Coming to Qatar from Phillip Island is a culture shock, and takes a while to get your head around. Riders need to throw away everything they have just learned, and start again.